Group travel options for persons with special needs are becoming more popular and more varied.
Whether you use a wheelchair, need oxygen, have a hearing impairment or rely on a service animal, there is a group trip for you. Andrew Garnett, founder and CEO of Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea, offers a few tips for finding and enjoying the right trip.
Use an agency with solid experience organizing group trips for persons with disabilities, preferably one that specializes in your disability. Connie George Associates works with wheelchair users and slow walkers; Passages Travel concentrates on Deaf Cruises; and Palm Beach Country Cruise & Travel works exclusively with Multiple Sclerosis. SATH (Society for Accessible Travel and Tourism), the Internet, and national non-profit agencies for your disability are resources for locating specialty travel agents.
Experienced agents will ask questions about your disability needs, some may be uncomfortable. Be candid, and specific. This is the first step in making your experience as effortless and enjoyable as possible.
Select a "disability-friendly" group package. Cruises are a good choice. Modern ships are highly accessible and visit multiple destinations while you enjoy a variety of dining and entertainment onboard. Celeste Belyea of CruisePlanners/Get Up and Go2 specializes in planning group travel for persons with respiratory problems. Her groups travel with "concentrators and enough oxygen to go to the moon." She says, "cruising offers flexibility. You can be active or just sit on the deck."
Connie George, a 15-year veteran of group tours for wheelchair users and slow walkers says cruise lines have more accessible spaces than land venues and ship personnel offer superior services.
Decide where you want to go, then select the group and ship that fits your interests. Generally, newer (and bigger) ships have more accessibility features including wider elevators, Braille menus and signage and more.
Don't worry if you can't reserve a designated accessible cabin. While Holland America, Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and others have a large number of accessible staterooms fleet-wide, big groups can fill these quickly. You or your agent can make any stateroom more accessible by renting commode chairs, shower stools, patient lifts and other specialty equipment, including hospital beds and baby cribs from Special Needs Group (www.specialneedsgroup.com).
Most group cruises focus on fun, but some include enrichment programs.
CruisePlanners/Get Up and Go2 holds seminars on medical advances, new technology and equipment updates. This agency and others also schedule time for you to be away from your companion or caretaker to interact with peers. "An important aspect of special needs group travel is learning what others are doing and making new friends," says Garnett.
Be sure you have trip insurance to cover a last minute cancellation. Ask your travel agent to arrange this for you.
Be realistic. No matter how experienced your travel agency, they cannot always make things perfect for all needs. Just relax, expect a few challenges, and enjoy the trip.